KIPS Blog: Parenting Assessment in Practice & Research

Nobel Prize Winner Calls for Assessing Parenting Quality

Posted by Phil Gordon on Tue, Jul 09, 2013 @ 11:29 AM


Good things certainly do come in small packages!  In particular, I am referring to a short 137- page book entitled Giving Kids a Fair Chance (A Strategy that Works) by James Heckman from the University of Chicago.  As a Nobel Prize winning economist, James Heckman’s writing is often highly technical.  However, he wrote this powerful little book for the public.  This book should be required reading for all working in our field, and for legislators and policy makers.

assessing parenting heckmanHeckman Makes Three Powerful Points:

1) More than cognitive skills are important in children’s success;

2) Both cognitive and noncognitive development start early and are primarily determined by the family environment of the child;

3) Early family-focused intervention is the most effective way to give kids a fair chance.

The last four posts to the KIPS Cradle were on how non-cognitive factors, which Heckman refers to as soft-skills, and Paul Tough refers to as character, are stronger predictors of success than IQ or academic skills.  For a very approachable review of noncognitive factors, I can’t recommend Paul Tough’s book highly enough: How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character

It is the second and third of Heckman’s points that I will focus on in this post.  Heckman repeatedly stresses that the research shows that what we think of as disadvantage is not primarily lack of material resources: 

… both cognitive and socio-emotional skills develop in early childhood, and their development depends on the family environment. But family environments in the United States have deteriorated over the past 40 years. A growing fraction of our children are being born into disadvantaged families, where disadvantage is most basically a matter of the quality of family life and only secondarily measured by the number of parents, their income, their education levels. And that disadvantage tends to accumulate across generations. -James Heckman, page 4

The proportion of children living in poverty in the United States has dramatically risen to 23%. Heckman employs  compelling research results to argue that it is the impact of poverty on the family environment that negatively impacts children. This disturbing trend is also our opportunity to make a difference in children’s lives, which is his third point:  Intervening early makes a difference.  Heckman makes persuasive economic arguments that interventions to address the impact of disadvantage later in life are less effective and much less efficient. Arguing the point Fredrick Douglass made long ago, “ It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Heckman has distilled his 3 points in to what is known as the Heckman Equation: invest + develop + sustain = gain.  Estimates point to a sevenfold return on quality investments in the early years.  There is no other known public investment that can make this claim.  

Since it is in the earliest years that the foundations for both cognitive and noncognitive development occur, it makes sense that this is the period where intervention efforts should focus.  Heckman reviews literature showing that attempts to remediate early disadvantage are more costly and less effective than early interventions like the Perry Preschool and the Abecedarian project.  Heckman is sometimes criticized for dismissing those who grew up with disadvantage.  I can’t find him saying that; rather he emphasizes that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  After all, he is an economist.  He also stresses that the most effective programs address the complexities of the home environment, especially parenting.

Need For Assessment

Furthermore, Heckman points out the importance of assessments in effectively addressing the factors contributing to disadvantage.  This blog explores the many values of assessing parenting for children, families and programs.  So you can imagine my delight when a Nobel Prize Winner in Economics wrote: 

The proper measure of disadvantage is not necessarily family poverty or parental education. The available evidence suggests that the quality of parenting is the important scarce resource. So we need better measures of risky family environments in order to achieve more accurate targeting.  
-James Heckman, page 35



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